This blog entry was supposed to be my promised Surface Book review. But fate intervened and I received a device that was highly unstable, suffering from frequent lockups and even a few BSODs.
If you follow my Twitter feed, you’ll know that I tried everything I could think of to correct the freezes, but after three days of utter frustration, I decided to return the Surface Book to my local Microsoft Store.
Ignoring telephone support may have been a mistake because several others who were having similar issues were able to get replacement units after troubleshooting via phone. By the time I decided to try to swap out my machine in person, I was told that the soonest I could expect a replacement was mid-December.
I opted instead to ask for a refund and will sit on the sidelines to see how quickly Microsoft can address the lingering issues with their new flagship product.
There’s much to like about the Surface Book and I’m fairly certain that my review would have been relatively glowing were it not for the hardware issues I encountered. Although all reviews I’ve read have mentioned some niggling problems, no major reviewers have complained about frequent lockups. So I will assume that mine was an isolated, though not entirely unique, case. The "Surface Book is Freezing" thread on Microsoft’s support forums is currently well over 300 posts long. http://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/surface/forum/surfbook-surfperf/surface-book-freezing/9889417d-32ff-46c7-8be5-5ce8b92799b6
So despite my frustration with the Surface Book, I was despondent to let it go. To console myself, I decided to apply a small portion of my refund to a new Surface Pro Type Cover ($130) and Surface Pen ($60).
The new Type Cover is outstanding: a huge step up from the last generation. I’ll have more to say about it during my Surface Pro 4 review.
Although I still have the new Surface Pen that came with the Surface Pro 4, I was eager to try the new nib set bundled with the replacement pen.
On the basis of my in-store testing, I’ve already advised several readers and Surface Pro 3 users to skip an upgrade to the new tablet and opt for a peripheral upgrade instead. Although the new pen won’t give SP3 owners any additional pressure sensitivity, I do believe the new nibs and eraser tip are worth the money if, like me, you like a little more “tooth” or friction from your pen nib.
The replacement nib set (right) includes four nibs of varying hardness, from 2H (very hard) to B (very soft). The standard nib in the Surface Pen is HB. The H nib approximates the hardness of the Surface Pro 3 pen. The replacement pen included in the set is also equipped with its own HB nib.
That standard nib is such an improvement over the slippery "plastic on glass" response of the Surface Pro 3 that I believe most users will be very happy with it. However, I found the B to be even better, approximating the toothiness of the Wacom Stylus Feel nibs I still recommend for the Surface Pro 1 and 2 and other Wacom EMR tablet PCs.
The 2H and H nibs are so hard that I don't see ever using them myself. Perhaps artists doing very fine line drawing may appreciate the hardness. I tested the nibs on one device with a Photodon MXH film screen protector and found the H was acceptable on it, but I still preferred the HB. This is all a matter of personal preference of course. You may reach an entirely different conclusion.
When the Surface Pen is used against a new Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book, it provides naturalistic feedback as pressure is applied. You can feel the sensation of the nib moving slightly into the pen body the harder you press.
This isn't the case when you use the new pen on a Surface Pro 3 or other N-Trig DuoSense2 device. Although the nibs feel great, pressing harder doesn't provide feedback. I don't know how Microsoft achieves this trick with their new hardware, but it's very convincing.
Most reviewers have already mentioned the Surface Pen's eraser tip, which really feels like a rubber eraser on both new and older devices. If you like to erase that way, you should really enjoy the sensation.
Since the only advantage of the new pen for Surface Pro 3 users is the new nib texture, you may wonder if you can just replace your current pen's nibs with the new generation replacements. Unfortunately, they're very differently sculpted (see above) and the new nib would have to be tapered in order to seat properly into the older pen's body.
Swapping nibs is very straight forward. The nib case itself cleverly doubles as an extractor (see below). Make sure to apply a lot of pressure between your index finger and thumb or the nib will slip. I lost my grip as I was pulling out a nib and lost an HB nib against the gray-black patterned carpeting in my office and it hasn't turned up since.
I hope that Microsoft eventually offers sets of same-hardness nibs. I would hate to pay $10 for a new replacement set when I'm only ever going to use one or two of the nibs. If any of you reading this prefer the hard nibs to the soft ones, message me and let's create a nib-swapping club!
The new Surface Pen is slightly longer than the Surface Pro 3 pen and it has a flat edge where the single side switch is located. That button is hidden at the tip end of the raised rubber accent strip. As much as I would have liked Microsoft to have kept a second programmable button, the flat edge and rubber strip really make it comfortable to grip the pen and move it with my index finger. Not trying to be cheeky, but the pen really does feel more like a pencil now.
Unfortunately, the side switch is not programmable; it will only function as a right click.
The eraser tip button has three functions: single-click launches OneNote, double-click triggers a screenshot (a fantastic new feature!) and clicking and holding calls up Cortana.
If any of this functionality is important to you, you'll need to pair your pen via your Bluetooth settings. You won't need to pair the pen in order to just draw with it on your Surface Pro 3 or other N-Trig device.
At the Surface Pen's unveiling, Microsoft indicated that the pen would hold a one year charge. Following that confusing statement, many users who've tested the new pen at a local Microsoft Store or Best Buy have come away convinced that the pen is disposable. That's absolutely not the case. The Surface Pen contains a AAAA battery that should last a year between replacements.
Microsoft has inexplicably changed the the cap design so that the pen is nearly impossible to open unless you know the magic combination. And even doing so, I really worried I was going to break the pen trying to pry off the cap.
As illustrated below, the cap requires an 1/8 of a counter-clockwise turn in order to align a notch in the cap with a contact in the barrel. And it still will require significant force to pull the cap off when it's properly aligned. Putting the cap back on requires carefully aligning the cap notch and contact.
The bottom line is that this process is so finicky and precise, that I recommend you just bookmark this article now so that you can come back to it in a year's time when you need to replace your pen battery!
In addition to testing the pen on the Surface Pro 3, I also tried it out on the VAIO Z Canvas and the Sony VAIO Flip 15A. In both cases, I vastly preferred the quieter soft nibs of the Surface Pen vs. the hard tapping of the VAIO and Sony pens. As I mentioned earlier, screen protectors will interact with your nib texture, so the softness you prefer on glass may be unacceptably draggy on screen protector film.
I really didn't encounter any meaningful difference in drawing results using the new pen and nibs. On the Surface Pro 3, the added friction provided a bit more confidence in my strokes. Conversely, on the VAIO Z Canvas, the added drag introduced a bit more wobble in slow strokes that I ended up rectifying with brush stabilization.
UPDATE: I was asked by a Twitter follower whether the new nibs are susceptible to the same wear as the SP3 nibs. I'm not sure whether later model Surface Pro 3 pens exhibited this issue, but in the early days, the nib would fray around the edges as an outer coating peeled off. The tip wouldn't continue to deteriorate at that rapid rate but that initial impression was very troubling. After about ten days of use, none of my new nibs show any signs of wear.
Ultimately only you will be able to decide whether you like the new nib textures and whether the pen is worth the steep price. But think of it this way: the Surface Pen costs $40 less than an Apple Pencil and the eraser and flat edge are much closer to the feel of a pencil than any pen on the market!